Kenny Thomas grew up leaving Akron and Barberton for fun.

Raised in Elizabeth Park, he moved to Barberton in seventh grade. From either city, a public bus would take him to basketball courts with glass backboards in Stow or maintained parks in Cuyahoga Falls or a full menu of fun at Croghan Park in Fairlawn.

“To have those nice things here would just be amazing,” he thought while growing up in a low-income neighborhood beneath the All-America Bridge just north of downtown Akron.

Now 34, Thomas is the community resource director for the 240 families who still live in the heart of Elizabeth Park, in that Cascade Valley of town homes below the Y-bridge. His councilwoman, Tara Samples, urged him this year to speak for the community by applying for a grant to create the park he never had growing up.

His plan for a better park is one of two winning proposals in the city's second annual round of up to $100,000 Akron Parks Challenge grants, which will be announced Monday.

Thomas sees the grant as seed money that "builds an overall park that this side of Akron has probably never seen," like what's happened for Lock 3 downtown. His winning application was actually the combination of two plans submitted this year. His focused on recreation. The Akron Parks Collaborative, which administers the grants, combined it with the community-art approach of a separate pitch by local resident and Kent State University professor David Pereplyotchik.

“Whether you’re an athlete, elderly, a child or whether you do ballet, there’s going to be something to do at our park,” Thomas said.

The other $100,000 grant went to Park East. Otherwise known as Canal Park, Park East stretches through a diverse neighborhood running along the Towpath Trail from downtown to Summit Lake.

The Park East plan was submitted by a team led by Thomas Fuller, head of the nonprofit residential builder Alpha Homes. The group proposed improvements that will immerse nearby residents in nature and attract neighbors to come together with well-lit, safe places to play.

Both park projects, which now move into a community outreach stage, aim to address inclusion, diversity and long-standing inequities in neighborhoods near downtown.

The Elizabeth Park plan involves everything from freshening up benches and courts to installing community-created art with a goal of “attracting visitors to the park, creating a joyous atmosphere and boldly signifying the community’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity,” Pereplyotchik said in a statement shared by the city.

The Park East project team wrote in its application that “racism has historically limited movement of African-American residents to distant natural settings, even if they had the means to travel. Residents of low-income neighborhoods are also discouraged from utilizing nearby city parks due to legitimate safety concerns.

“These fears and concerns must be addressed and corrections devised to increase park usage and allow Canal Park to become the community resource it has the potential to become,” the Park East team wrote.

The mayor-appointed Akron Parks Collaborative worked with Akron City Council, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Akron Civic Commons and Summit County Historical Society to select the two winning bids. “The entire selection committee was thrilled by the levels of creativity and innovation but also by the thoughtful inclusivity and community cooperation we saw across applications,” said Akron Parks Collaborative Executive Director Bridget Ambrisco.

Receiving up to $100,000 each in the inaugural round of grants last year were Reservoir Park in Goodyear Heights, Cadillac Triangle in West Akron and Chestnut Ridge in Kenmore.

“Our City parks are places to foster connectedness, build wellbeing and shape our community,” Mayor Dan Horrigan said in a statement. “We are proud that through the Akron Parks Challenge we can see those goals realized thanks to empowered citizens with innovative ideas who are ready to help meet the unique needs of their neighborhood.”

The community engagement process now begins for neighbors of Park East and Elizabeth Park. Thomas, who works for the housing management company The Community Builders, will survey the 240 families when they drop off rent each month. Plus, he plans to go door to door and meet them as they use the park.

Samples said she’s working with another nonprofit to see about adding a splash pad (not as big as the one planned at Joy Park) and maybe a bike trail from Elizabeth Park to the Towpath near the Mustill Store.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.